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November 28, 2003

A Philosopher of YL... Approximately.

Tuesday I was at a presentation wholly unrelated to YL: “Unconventional Strategies for Managing Your Career”. Myself not being in a conventional line of work, it can be difficult to think critically about my “career”. I figured this event might spark some insights. Lateral thinking, y’know?

Anyway, my mind wandered and I started wondering what it would be like if I described my vocation as “YL philosopher”. Then, going a step further, I wondered what I would describe as my focus within YL philosophy (as if such a field existed!). After all, most academic philosophers would qualify their work, focusing on a particular sub-field (epistemology, ontology, ethics, etc.) -- or on a particular problem (e.g. the ethics of biotechnology). Just brainstorming, here’s the list of topics that I thought of as my “specialties”:

I’ve got lots of other interests too. Violence against minors being perhaps the most notable. [My undergraduate thesis (in psych) was titled “Adult Supremacism: Violence against minors viewed through an oppression framework”.] Still, in terms of where my mind spends the most time wandering, I like this list. I find myself wondering how it would work as a structure for a book project...

Section 1: The organization model of age

In any book about the relationship between youth and adults, you’re going to want to know how I define “youth”. To start with, however, it’s useful to distinguish between three models of “age”: age as biology; age as personal character, a way of behaving; age as a legal status. Further exploration of “age as a legal status” leads to noticing that adults collectively wield power over youth, and thus can be likened to an organization. Like an organization, the group “adults” has members and non-members; it has a formal governmental structure; and it has members who lead, members who are passive, and members who are critical of the collective’s politics. [I’ve already covered most of this information in Age Lines: How to Define "Adults" and "Youth".]

Section 2: Age identity and self-concept

Any adequate theory of adultism and YL must answer this question: if youth suffer at the hands of adults, why do so many go on to become oppressive adults themselves? The organizational model of age deals with youth and adults as two social groups that are in conflict with each other; it would seem to suggest that youth must go through some kind of political conversion, disavowing their former solidarity with youth, in order to become true adults.

However, this is not the case. Most youth never truly feel solidarity with youth as a class -- from an early age, they are wishing that they could just hurry up and become adults themselves. This leads to an interesting subject area: how youth attempt to escape the stigma of being young. Strategies for increasing personal status include: denying youngness (“I’m not a kid”), emphasizing another identity (e.g. male), putting down others, using a fake I.D. or appropriating other trappings of adulthood.

The “adults as organization” model also suggests interesting ways for adults to relate to their own membership. Instead of simply accepting their privileged position in society as natural, they can become conscientious objectors to the policies of their organization. Instead of embracing the cultural mannerisms, clothing, and “age-appropriate” interests of their group, adults can “age-bend”. Instead of aspiring to embody “adulthood” and the qualities of “maturity”, we can idealize “ageless being” and personal characteristics that have no connection with how old you are.

Section 3: The nature of power

The essence of power is perhaps a “command / obey” relationship between two people. It’s understandable that given the physical, social, and economic disabilities that human beings experience at the beginning of life, adults should play a strong role of assistance. However, just because youth have real needs, this should not give parents free reign. “Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely,” is true with regards to adult-youth relationships, as much as anywhere else. Acts of petty or malicious tyranny by adults are a real problem.

We can all understand the desire to have power and control: it simply means getting your own way. However, desire for control must be tempered by an ethic of consent, or else little but the threat of negative consequences will prevent using force -- which regardless of physical harm, is experienced as harmful if one’s interest in self-determination is violated. Adults have projected the “command / obey” relationship originating within the family onto society as a whole: it is the model for how adults and youth relate in the governmental system, the school system, in public accommodations, etc. Because adults have an personal stake in maintaining control -- and few have a strong ethic of consent -- youth should not depend upon adults to divest themselves of exclusive power voluntarily. Youth must engage in activism, making it too uncomfortable for adults to not change.

The historical relationship between adults and youth can be described as one of “oppression”. Using this language enables YL to make connections with other liberation movements. [I’ve been playing with the idea of excising the word “oppression” from my writing. However, perhaps this is the appropriate place for it: toward the end of a discussion about power in general, being used specifically to connect this movement to others. Previously I’ve started with the definition of oppression, and then endeavored to show how adultism meets its criteria. Too academic, too dependent on semantics, not enough describing the phenomena of adultism in its own terms.]

Section 4: The practicalities of organizing an activist effort

In the context of one young person’s daily life, there are many casual indignities, minor battles, and inconvenient legal constraints. Working alone, individuals can bring about some change; however, if one wants to change institutional systems (which foster so many of these injustices), there are strong benefits to working as a group. A group tends to be taken more seriously than an individual; a group can provide mutual encouragement to take action; a group can harness the strength of multiple intelligences and points of view; a group can often survive past the loss of a single member.

Some practical considerations...

Beyond the basics of how to do activism, there is a larger question about what constitutes a “movement”, and what a minority movement such as YL can hope to accomplish. While I embrace the idealistic vision of a YL revolution, I think it is more realistic for YL groups to envision themselves as watchdog groups, participating in a never-ending negotiation for justice between the many “special interest groups” that make up society. [See The Future of Youth Justice for more on this subject.]

...Hm. Looks like that list I mentioned at the top could work pretty well as a book structure!

At the presentation on Tuesday, another idea I had was to try taking an essay concept, and expand upon it through successive stages: several disjointed words, becoming a few unrelated sentences, becoming a page of free-floating paragraphs (like the abstract at the start of an academic article), becoming a full-on essay with several subsections, becoming a book with chapters broken into several sections. In a small way, that’s what I’ve tried here. My word of the month is “approximation”; this seems to be a good way to test a big concept before getting too invested.

Posted by Sven at November 28, 2003 12:06 AM